Joyeux Noel


Midnight mass in the 12th century cathedral at Narbonne rounded out the Christmas dinner of way too much food–lamb, salad, haricot vert, cassoulet beans, potatoes, figs, foie gras, du pain, pain, pain!–and drink (wine and champagne). It was lovely to walk the stone streets in the brisk, windy night, bundled in heavy winter coats, wool hats and thick scarves, all five of us, into the dank, solemn air of the ancient worship ground and gathering.
 
The sound of angelic choruses vibrating with the enormous, ancient, wood-piped organ created a majestic mood, and the parishioners seated in centuries old pews facing the gold-plated, ornate altar where mysterious rites of chanting, bells and smoke took place.
 
The wine helped open up my heart and lungs. I was moved. I stood, sat, stood, sang, sat, stood, sang…for two hours. I sang Christmas songs loudly-passionately (catching the echoes inside the mile high ceiling) in French, a few Gloria’s and hallelujah’s, and all was grateful and grand. 


The experience for my children might have been less engaging. They fidgeted less than I did, but they were clearly unmoved. Having worked in a Catholic high school for four years, I at least was familiar with the procession. They went panicked blank when the offering plate was passed in front of them. They’re obviously not Catholic.
 
And their eyes widened in surprise and then ironic glee to see their father line up to take communion–a first sight for their two decades or so of life. When he and his mother returned to their seats, the universal let’s get out of here side glance and nod of the head had us heading for the doors at midnight–into the cold, then into our impossibly compact car, driving back past the canals and into the dark, lampless, skeletal vineyard lined lane to home. 

Carcassonne

Like most days this week, I start out of a disrupted sleep, having lain way past a decent hour. I awaken late morning French time most days and go to bed early evening California time. My iPad tells French time and my laptop refuses to leave California. I work late into the French night completing blog posts for my employer on Miami time. Time spins nauseatingly.
 
Yesterday, after awakening around 11:30 French time and playing musical transformer and usb chords (Who has the Samsung/iPhone charger??!!), I swallowed a bite of pain au chocolat and quick coffee to motor off to Carcassonne, the Medieval fortress and castle, which also sports a lovely restaurant rated by a tire company (yes, I know it’s a coincidence that restaurant raters and tires have the same name).
 
After eating a sumptuous lunch of creative concoctions like foie gras coated in sweet wine emulsion merengue on a pop sickle stick (wtf, right?), and drinking too many Kir Royals and local white wine, we walked through the castle entry via a narrow cobble stone street filled with souvenir shops.
 
And when my oldest daughter ran into one shop walled with medieval swords and daggers, I knew it wouldn’t be long before her father was paying for two Game of Thrones John Snow swords. I warned them that drunken purchases never look good in the morning, to no avail.
 
But the day was lovely, the castle impressive and our spirits high. Captive momentarily to another time, another dimension really (Can you believe this was all built manually over decades?), I quietly absorbed every loose stone in the dirt path, every brilliantly green blade of grass, every cotton cloud in the sky, and every skip, hop and climb of my scampering daughters up and down castle walls and walkways.
 
The drive home along pine and canal-lined country lanes that often slowed us into narrow cobble stone alley towns squeezed between sugar cube cafes and cursive patisseries, in the quiet cold darkness just after dusk was peaceful. Four phones, two iPhones and two Samsungs, ran out of juice (and GPS), so we had to feel our way home, through every roundabout.
 
Home: Medieval dust still lingering on our clothes, in our breath, we each retired to our places, the girls to their room with stolen chargers to resurrect their connections to Snapchat, Twitter and California life time, me to my laptop and work, and mother and son to the telly to watch lame French game shows.
 
 And the next day: do it all over again in a new town, new castle or cathedral, casting our lines into a timeless sea of changing faces, feasts and facades, our feet in neither and both worlds, floating, lost and leisurely.

Winter Time 


The shortest day, mercifully so, lessening light

Astronomically the one rule calculable, luminosity.

Dry canals flicker bark-pitch under sky blanketed grey.

New boots, half price at the border, shorten my step

Planted, enmired, mud-suctioned to hay and rock.

It’s 15:22 though the sky cares less for numbers than I.

Clouds shake their breath off with wispy shoulder

Disregarding walkers below, lost in foreign shades,

We the burdened, the calamitous, the retuned notes

Cast eyes to a dimming horizon slunk atop dead branches.

It’s winter, her solstice slowing time at the axis,

And happily so, no rush, no filter, just stragglers in exile

For a time, while the light slants low, configuring us

Country-free, wanderers, timed projections sur les Pyrenees.

The thing about perspective…Ten for Today

What a thing to do, this getting away to change the scenery. Being on a family trip to France and Spain has brought not only refreshment to a pretty stale when it wasn’t toxic year, even years (I’ve had some years), but also a much needed perspective check. Seeing new lands, even if they’re the old ones, helps shift awareness into the absorbing/observing mode and backed out of the constant spewing mode.

The women I travel with, my daughters, are entwined in memory and making memories. My mother in law’s home is filled with childhood memories, flashbacks and glimpses: one was six and the other three the last time we visited. It was summer then. But this time they’ve brought themselves to their mamie’s house: inquisitive, cynical, wry and wondering. They’re excited but skeptical about this new outlook they were promised in this more socially conscious historically and gustatorily fermented with history country. It’s all about food, everywhere, every day.

They want to believe this land holds lure, romance–and it does–but they’re wise enough to know, despite the language barrier, that their 82 year old grandmother can sound as narrow-minded, silly, prejudiced, stereotypical and judgmental as any American. It’s both a national and a family thing. Their mamie is…well, their mamie. She is all of France and all of her. They love and hate to see themselves in her. 

And yet, the strangeness and familiarity of it all gives them, us, the comfort and discomfort to sit back and play compare and contrast, and practice some serious appreciation. They have options to be part of the world, not just their world. 

Oh, and internet access is sketch at best. The better to see their sometimes scowling, sometimes intent, oftentimes laughing faces.

France Again


Paris

The French. So cool, so unconcerned, yet not really affected. They just do their thing. 

We traveled heavy, 8 huge pieces of luggage on wheels yet wholly unwieldy. And lugging that shit through the train stations, all in a line, cramming the already small corridors even smaller. But confused as we were, a passerby gave as an unsolicited direction or tip, all while zipping along, pace unthwarted by our unsightly clogging of the turnstiles and escalators.

It’s a rapid-fire city, yet I don’t feel the anxiety or aggression I find in my suburban hometown. My country is ravaged with anger and hopelessness. I’m glad to be away to de-steam and gain perspective. 

Food. That’s all there is to say. Even the ordinary corner brasserie offers the finest. I had cod in a buerre-blanc sauce with sautéed spinach after fresh oysters with mignonette sauce, so fresh and gorgeously good, rounded off nicely with pear Creme brûlée. The pinot was soft and lovely, and the espresso brilliant not bitter. Pure coffee.

I dream of French espresso at night in my beach town US home. Small pleasures.

After a bustling, crowded brasserie scene, we ventured on Rue San Michel, passed the Pantheon where Napoleon lies buried spying on his beloved city, the one he masterminded. It’s the Latin Quarter, full of students on their last days before holiday. The night is crisp, probably low 50’s but still and clear. The old gibbous moon casts a striated glow across the tip of Norte Dame’s buttressed topmost spiral. Our lady peers above the city telegraphing disapproval of burgeoning modernity–and us tourists–clear across town to the tomb. I feel her.

And the 16th century church featuring Bach every Saturday stood eerily sandwiched between stone and masonry, dwelling and commerce. On a brisk night, throat to boot warmed by French Pinot, Paris welcomed us aimless wanderers soaking in the hate sanctuary. 


Montpellier

The south threads vineyard to the right to oyster farms to the left as we travel the country road tracking miles of cordoned sea, rhythmic cages to the tide. Down the road thirty to forty minutes from the airport, we stopped at a petit village paper napkin restaurant serving fresh oysters, mussels, cod, clams and conch. Plateau de fruits de mer. Fruits of the sea, so fresh. Farmed local oysters keep the region’s salt locked deep inside the shells. Paris oysters frown upon their peasantry, I’m sure.

We’ll stay in a Spanish red tile roof and white stucco house facing acres of vineyards, dry now in winter. They belong to the nephew now, my children’s great aunt having cuddled up next to her husband’s burial plot. When the children were 3 and 6, we spent a few weeks in summer here when the swimming pool was a chicken coop next to the German Shepherds’ pen. And a pig too. My oldest wondered at a brown pig. Aren’t all pigs pink?

We had fresh laid eggs, brown and imperfect, but full gamey flavor, and we rode bikes and horses along the canals. We opened the loch for one huge sloop half moon house boat of fine resin pine shellacked to shine. An American woman piloted it and invited us on board for a slow-going mile or so. We folded up the stroller and boarded. She was supposed to be spending six months with her husband navigating these canals throughout France after his retirement. But he died instead. The 17th century Canals du Midi persist without him.

The winter before that summer in 2001, we spent a Christmas reunion here, the three brothers together again after twenty years. Three families, the grandchildren from 3 to 21 years old. And mamie cooked a feast as is her wont: oysters and lobster and foie gras and lamb, gratin, frommage, chocolats, table wine unending from the local vineyard, local muscat for the foie gras, and rich, aromatic coffee and creme brule to finish. We laughed and ate. 

I see the pictures around the house from that winter. Everyone smiles broadly into the camera, even the brother who disappeared directly after that event, never to be heard from again. He does that. Just disconnects from the family he loves but mostly hates. No one can explain it so I can understand. My smile, as ever, is only half formed.

And now, looking over the land, lush green as ever, only now it’s punctuated with commerce and industry where only horses and cows peppered the open fields. Now there’s a supermarket walking distance where only a ten minute bike ride away tiny corner market serviced this small stretch of street just inside the borders of Salelles d’aude. It’s rural–but not as isolated.

Inside the house, I smile at the pastel green stools lining the green, blue and white tile counter where I once fed my little one in bib and baby seat gripped to the tile to float that nearly 20 pound near toddler at our first Christmas visit. Her mamie planted a Christmas tree, a sapling then. It towers above us stately now, twenty years later.

And six yeas after her first visit, she and her three year old sister, perched perilously atop those high stools, snacked on la vache qui rit cheese and yoplait yogurt. The house looks the same as it did then, only more cluttered. Because its owner has finally slowed. I thought it would never happen, this whirlwind of endless hyperactive cooking, cleaning and chattering. She’s been dying since I know her, 37 years now, except when I see her. She could outrun me in a foot race, I always imagined. But she’s 82 now, and moves slower, like a 68 year old. 

I’m older too. The travel is no less painful since I don’t sleep on planes, upright and cabined tightly. But now I feel the aftermath of the struggle in my back and neck, having desperately tried to drift at angles suspended in air. I ache. But somehow I’m less grouchy than those other times. Perhaps it’s the growing up, my kids, now adults, and me, seasoned with too much obligation and not enough appreciation. My kids have taken up the grouch mantle. My mother in law blames me for their grouchiness when they’re tired. No one’s good enough for her son. As it should be.

A humble meal of vegetable soup, brown grainy, country bread, ratatouille, lamb cutlet (for the carnivores) and frommage paired with a young Saint Emilion filled us to sleeping, even after our late hours long naps. Hopefully jet lag lags a little less tomorrow. The chef and her son watch Miss France beauty pageant while the children suck up the wireless they’ve been missing for far too long, at least a day.

Judge not: Ten for Today


“I love your cute, little ass,” he always says, and every time he does, I guffaw, snort or giggle just a little. Not a tee hee, coy, embarrassed or flattered giggle either. It’s more disbelieving and cynical than that–way more.
 
Both parents at one time or another measured asses in the family. “Poor Pam. She has no ass,” I’ve heard my father say on more than one occasion. “Not like her sisters.” Nope, I’d silently always confirm the criticism because I’ve heard my mother respond to his remark with, “She has my ass, and I got my mother’s flat ass.”
 
I used to joke to people (still do) that I come from a long line of flat asses. I’d see body type illustrations, animated or real life, of the body labels “pear shape” or “spoon” in Cosmo or some other rag. Spoon, definitely spoon. Spoon has a long torso and convex posture–with a flat ass. Yep, spoon.
 
In my youth and young adulthood (the time when they could get away with that kind of crap), people would comment on my height. “Oh, she’s tall,” they’d say to my mom. “Yes, she takes after her 6’4″ father.” And the first time I met my mother in law at her suburban flat in Garches, just outside Paris, the first words she spoke upon seeing me were, “Elle est grande!” (She’s tall). France is short.
 
I’m 5’8″. I look up to meet the eyes of my 5’11” daughter. She’s tall, relative to other American women. I’m tall relative to the French. And all of this parceling of parts into categories to somehow order ourselves, well, I discouraged it raising my own children.
 
I explained to them how labeling others by body shape, color or size objectified people (in terms they could understand, of course). The brainwashing took, and now they berate my father, who habitually points to people’s fat, skinny, ugly, hairy, bow-legged, shapely, old, young, black, white, “oriental” (and more) selves.
 
More than PC, the de-labeling gives people a chance. It’s lazy and disinterested to sum people up by their parts. You can make snap judgments if you know their “type.” “Oh, she’s insecure and doesn’t date because she’s taller than most guys her age,” I’ve heard tell of my own daughter. And I still carry scars from those who–a la Trump–rated my body parts, a profiling which I swallowed as fact.
 
I know better now. The force-fed, culturally-created body ideals against which others (and I) measured myself bullshitted me for too long. My ass may be flat, cute, small, just right to onlookers. Bottom line (yep, I did that), I couldn’t s(h)it without it. Judge that.
 

Credit: spoon-silverware: pixabay

Bastille Day No More


Ten Minutes for July 14, 2016. 

I remember a couple of Bastille Days in France, one at Versailles with synchronized fireworks to Beethoven and Mozart like I had never delighted in as much before or after. I recall another one sardine sandwiched among Parisians at Trocadero, crazy packed and loud but joy-mad in celebration.  And then there was today….

My heart breaks when the world’s horror intrudes. Another mass killing by a mad murderer. And we just live with the inevitability. Will they ever stop if we just continue as we do, seeking the perpetrators, the sources of the infection, wait their lunatic lords out and then strike them dead? We do get to them eventually, but a handful at a time when they scatter the planet like vermin. Yes, they live insanely, with lust for blood and hate, and perhaps we (the rest of the sane planet in habitants) have given them reason and perhaps not. They may just be walking under the zealot umbrella disguised as faithful when they simply lust for power, blood, self-expansion in the sickness of pure cold emptiness and disconnection so vast that nothing short of annihilation can make them feel anything.

Compassion for soulless killers grates at me. I want to feel it. There must be a way to forgive them their sick hearts, but I have not found it yet. I still wish they had never come to be in this lifetime. I wish they had been killed before they killed. And I cannot deny that. 

No solace anywhere, not for victims or murderers. Grieve hard all of us, as we slip past the rifle scope.

 
Image: Wikipedia/Bastille Day